Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Officer, Edward Cairns (1871–1921)

by Juliet Peers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Edward Cairns Officer (1871-1921), artist, was born on 19 September 1871 at Murray Downs station, New South Wales (near Swan Hill, Victoria), son of Suetonius Henry Officer and his wife Mary Lillias Rigg, daughter of Rev. Dr Adam Cairns, and grandson of Sir Robert Officer. He was educated at Toorak College, Melbourne. Frederick McCubbin, visiting art master at the college, encouraged Officer to pursue art as a career. He attended the National Gallery schools, Melbourne, in 1893-94 and concurrently was one of the few male pupils at E. Phillips Fox's Melbourne School of Art. A lasting debt to Fox is visible in Officer's infusion of emotive colour values into the sometimes bland formulae of the nationalist landscape.

Officer left Melbourne in early 1895 to study at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant and in London with Solomon J. Solomon. In 1896 he exhibited with the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils, London, and arranged an exhibition of French and American students at the popular sketching ground of Etaples. He settled in France and exhibited with the Old and New salons in 1897-99. He was elected to the Royal Society of British Artists in 1899.

In Melbourne from 1900 Officer was director of the Melbourne School of Art until June 1901 when he departed for Kallara, a family property on the Darling River, New South Wales. After award of the Wynne prize for landscape in 1903, in 1904-05 he toured Europe and the Middle East. In July 1908 he won first prize in a National Art Gallery of New South Wales competition for paintings of remote districts of Australia. On 14 December he married Grace Eleanor, daughter of Sir Thomas FitzGerald, at Scots Church, Melbourne. Then, during three years overseas interrupted by a brief return home, Officer exhibited in Paris and London and established a home at the village of Giverny, France. Views of France, Greece, the Pacific and New Zealand were included in his one-man show in Melbourne in November 1912. From this exhibition the Felton Bequest purchased 'The Woolshed' for the National Gallery.

When he read of a proposal by Hardy Wilson to establish a national art society in Sydney, Officer wrote to McCubbin from Kallara expressing his support for a new professional association to supersede the local societies in capital cities, but suggested that Melbourne would be a more suitable base. At the meeting on 30 August 1912 in Melbourne that founded the Australian Art Association, a closed body with membership only by invitation, he was elected president, a post he held until his death. Despite his independent means and interstate pastoral connexions, Officer was accepted as an 'artist's artist' and his work reflects the values of his era. For his contemporaries his pastoral interests lent veracity to his paintings of bush scenery, in comparison to those painted by plein-airists on day trips from the cities. He drew a solid and grandiose style from the casual and poetic motifs of the Heidelberg school, retaining the lively surface but deploying brushstrokes with self-conscious vigour: his most distinctive works bring a lyrical vividness to the traditional Australian landscape.

Declared medically unfit for service during World War I, Officer was active in Red Cross activities and raised over £2000 from one-man exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. A trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria from 1916 and a recognized connoisseur, he defended Frank Rinder's Felton Bequest purchases in a letter to the Argus in June 1920. He died, without issue, from inflammation of the brain of a week's duration, on 7 July 1921 at Macedon and was buried there. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Mowle, A Genealogical History of Pioneer Families of Australia (Melb, 1978)
  • Art and Architecture, 5, no 2, Mar-Apr 1908
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 11 Jan 1895, 20 Nov 1902
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 June 1914, 26 June 1920
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 16 July 1921
  • Bulletin, 14 July 1921
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Jan 1933
  • Graham Officer papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • McCubbin papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Juliet Peers, 'Officer, Edward Cairns (1871–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/officer-edward-cairns-7884/text13707, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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